In this episode, Carrie interviews Sarah Brown about her experience with postpartum OCD. Sarah shares her struggles with intrusive thoughts and compulsions after childbirth and how she found ways to cope and heal.

  • How Sarah identified early symptoms of OCD throughout her life, even as a child.
  • Sarah’s initial experiences with therapy and the challenges of finding appropriate treatment.
  • The impact of postpartum OCD on daily life and motherhood.
  • Practical advice for family members on how to support someone dealing with OCD, including managing reassurance-seeking behaviors.
  • Practical advice for new mothers who may be experiencing similar challenges.

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Transcript:

Carrie: Welcome to Hope for Anxiety and OCD episode 126. I’ve been slowly starting to tell you about our rebranding process that we’re going through on the podcast. I’m super excited to tell you that I’m in the process of interviewing different web developers who are going to help bring part of this new branding vision online.

I hope to have all the pieces in place this fall to share with you, and I’m excited to talk with you about all that God is doing through this process of helping me refine it. the show to be focused on what I believe he wants me to go in the direction of. If you’ve been following along with the podcast, you know we love personal stories, you know we’ve talked quite a bit about postpartum, anxiety, depression, and OCD.

So if you’re experiencing any of those things, we definitely want you to know that there’s hope and that you’re not alone. You may feel alone inside your head with a lot of different thoughts that can be quite terrifying at times. Our guest today is Sarah Brown, and she is going to candidly tell us her personal story of dealing with postpartum OCD.

Welcome, Sarah. Tell us a little bit about your story. When did you start to notice yourself having symptoms of OCD?

Sarah: I would say actually growing up over the years I would have symptoms like as a child there’d be times where I’d really fixate on something and feel like I had to confess it and even through my teenage years and then into my marriage.

I mean, I remember dealing with this even over the last Winter Olympics, a situation where I just felt like I had to confess it and now I see that that’s probably definitely OCD starting to like seep through the cracks. So I guess throughout my life.

Carrie: Were there thoughts in your head that you were confessing to other people that you were having?

Was that how it was showing up? Or things that you had done and you were like, Hey, I did this and I just want to let you know, or want to apologize for it?

Sarah: Yes. Things like that. I would say as much as a Christian can say this insignificant lying, somebody asks you a question and you respond off the cuff because it’s, maybe it’s an embarrassing question and you say, Oh no, I never did that, or I never would have done that. Years later being like, “Oh, I have this unconfessed lie in my life when you probably don’t need to confess that to that person.”That’s how it would come up. I did have, I remember a few persistent thoughts, phrases that were shameful that would run in my head and I was like, “What is going on?” Maybe about other people’s children or things like that. I think my anxiety level was not high enough to cause me to fixate on it which would cause it to be a recurring issue.

Carrie: So it was a little bit easier to allow those to move through, it was strange or unusual, but then you didn’t get as stuck on them as you did later in life.

You said that the postpartum OCD really set in and peaked when you weaned your fifth child. Tell us about that experience.

Sarah: I had dealt with anxiety through my motherhood, but never really did much to treat it, but I think I can look back and see patterns now. So anyways, after weaning her, this was one of the first times within my motherhood that I was not pregnant with another baby.

She was my fifth baby, so we decided to take a break. I weaned her right before Christmas, and then my anxiety started to ramp up in February and in March. I think it was probably like a hormonal situation because later on, I found out that my progesterone was off and my periods were long. I had PMDD where I was just extremely anxious right before my period would start. I think it was all working together to bring on what I would know later as postpartum OCD.

Carrie: What you’re saying is you had your kids pretty close together and so almost your body was used to being pregnant and then when it wasn’t, it kind of messed with your hormones or things got out of whack.

Sarah: I think that it brought to light my hormones being out of whack.

Carrie: How did that show up for you? Were you having OCD thoughts about your children? 

Sarah: It started, the whole onset when it got just super bad was my husband and I were watching a TV show and there were subtitles on the screen because more than half of the show was in a different language. Some spy show.  Every time the words, thank you, would show up on the screen, I would see a different word. It wasn’t actually seeing it. It was the word like, was that there or not? Was that in my mind? Why was that there? Of course, it was this word associated with something that was shameful for me that we continued to watch this show over the next couple weeks. Every time somebody would say thank you, it would pop up. As my anxiety went up about it and my shame, I felt like I couldn’t talk to anybody about it because it was just shame inducing. It just made the whole situation worse and worse. And then it came to a head. One night, I had what I like to think was probably just a couple hour panic attack, where I started having one particular intrusive thought about molesting my son during a diaper change.

I could not get rid of it. It was just over and over and over and over. It felt real. I could see him laying on the rug. I could see the rug itself and the sunlight coming into the room and I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. I couldn’t sleep, had high anxiety, and couldn’t eat, which is when I finally went to my first therapist to try to find some help.

I said I have no idea what’s going on. I promise I don’t want to do this, but I have this thought I can’t get out of my head. And with that were other thoughts right in that same time. Also, like, fear of, what if I’m homosexual? Where did that come from? It was just so out of the blue. I feared I would just be out of control of my body and that I would do something to hurt my family and I wouldn’t be in control of myself, like I would basically go insane. I had all of these kind of recurring things, but the molestation thought was the worst one. And it hit right, as OCD does, it hit right home with my only son. Of course, this very precious, all of my children being precious, but I only have one son. It would be on this particular child that my thoughts were centered.

Carrie: Okay, that makes a lot of sense, actually, just this in this terms of OCD being attached to things that you value. I imagine that you probably hadn’t heard maybe of other mothers having these types of really scary thoughts.

Was that something that you felt very isolated in or like, “Okay, I can’t tell anybody about this.It’s so horrible.”

Sarah: Extremely isolated. In fact, I only knew of one other person in my realm who I didn’t even know, knew of, an author’s child, who had grown up with OCD, and to be honest, the thought of a diagnosis of OCD was just, I couldn’t even carry that burden at the time.

I thought, well, maybe it is OCD, But I couldn’t even look it up because everything was so heavy. I thought I was going crazy and I really had fears that if I told somebody I was going to be locked up, taken away from my kids, those were like my core fears of being misunderstood in the whole thing. So very isolating.

Carrie: I think that is a common fear that I’ve heard from other mothers too is all of your worst fears seem like they’re going to come true. I’m going to be taken away from my kids or they’re going to be taken from me. I’m going to be determined to be somehow like an unfit mother because I have all these thoughts that I don’t even want that are just there out of nowhere.

That’s an interesting time period too After you’ve been married for however long and have five kids to all of a sudden have thoughts about what if i’m homosexual? That’s a pretty good indicator that’s an OCD thought just completely like out of the blue. Were that one any easier to dismiss or what did it just seem really bizarre? Why is this coming now?

Sarah: It was bizarre. It was easier to dismiss, I think because my brain was, look, the bigger threat here is obviously to your wonderful kids that you love. That was where it was. Even I would have other thoughts right around the same time, like, God isn’t real, I don’t believe in him.

This is coming from a person raised in a Christian home who never ever doubted the existence of God. And suddenly, I would pray, or I would read my Bible, and, which I could hardly do, everything was so raw. I would just have this thought, I don’t believe that. And that’s coming from somebody who had believed this, from a child.

I think because the very worst thoughts were about my kids, I think those ones hit home the worst and therefore the other ones kind of receded back and they weren’t so terrible. That makes sense.

Carrie: That does make sense. Tell me what that process was of getting help for you.

Sarah: I went to my first therapist for two sessions and she said, look, you’ve got to get a grip. I realized that this person was not for me. Six months later, after struggling so much, I mean, I was reassurance seeking all the time.

Carrie: Did that therapist not know about OCD? The therapist, was it kind of like a Christian based therapy?

Sarah: She was a therapist and she did do EMDR with me for the first session and maybe even that second session that I went to, but it definitely didn’t flag OCD for her right away.

Carrie: Interesting. Okay.

Sarah: Which I think is unfortunate. I know that there is a statistic out there that says takes like six years to get diagnosed.

Carrie: Sometimes longer, kind of depending on how long, what age people started at. It’s hopefully that number is getting less, but I mean, I’ve heard, yeah, even higher to get a diagnosis.

Sarah: Yes. I really hope that goes down for people because I can’t imagine suffering for six years with it, especially because your compulsions tie you into it. It just reinforces it if you’re doing those compulsions. I think because maybe my compulsions were invisible, which is trying to pick it apart, reason with it, make sure in my head.

Carrie:A lot of ruminating? 

Sarah: Yes, tons. I mean, that’s what feeds it for me. I think maybe because it’s not like I was walking in there and saying, “Hey, I feel like my child’s going to get sick and die if I don’t wash my hands 100 times a day.” Maybe it would have been easier for her to see that it was OCD. I suffered for the next six months with it, and finally it got to the point where I was having obsessions about suicide which, I would say, intrusive thoughts. I’d see my deck, we have an upper deck and a lower deck, and I would glance up at it while playing outside with my kids and I would see myself hanging from it. That is a very hard thought, but the worst one was just an intrusive thought of sitting in my car in my garage, turning on the car, and Going to sleep.

I think what made it hard to distance is because I was so measurable, but at the same time, very afraid that I would ruin my life in some respect or another. Either I would hurt my kids, I would leave my marriage, or I would just kill myself. There are so many avenues to ruin your life, but all the worst-case scenarios.

All of them, all of them, so many. I finally having a hard time with that thought. I don’t know how long I dealt with it, maybe two weeks. Finally I told my husband I’m having to start. He got mad at me. Not mad, but like a righteous indignation. He said, “I can’t read your mind. You have to tell me that you’re struggling.”

I said, “I know. That’s why I told you.” The next day, I decided I’m going to go to therapy again. I’m going to try it again and I’m going to take medication until I’m better. Coming from the background that I came from, it was very hard for me to accept. The idea of taking medication, but it did help tremendously. And then to come back around to your question, I didn’t get diagnosed with postpartum OCD until a year and three months later after the onset, when I finally found out, Oh, this is actually something that other moms struggled with on a regular basis. I found that out through a perinatal therapist and started EMDR and kind of talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy with her.

Carrie: Okay.Awesome. I’m curious, was there specific traumas that you were trying to process with the EMDR or just working on some skills to get to a more relaxed space in your body?

Sarah: The trauma that I was trying to work through definitely had to do with thinking that I had caused myself to have OCD. Like it was my fault. Oh yes, definitely. It’s still, even today, sometimes something that haunts me, and I just have to respond back. Maybe it is, maybe not. Just leave it there. But I found out about sex from a, another like five-year-old girl when I was about five. We were just playing in our neighborhood, and it was a conversation I happened to walk in on, and anyway, it kind of opened this curiosity about it over my childhood.

When I started having intrusive thoughts as an adult or even as a teenager, I always thought, well, it’s because I was so curious, or I wired my brain to want to think about this type of thing. It must be my fault type of thing. EMDR did really help me to work through how I couldn’t have helped being in that situation.

It was not, it was not, and I couldn’t have helped being curious, very natural for a child to be curious. There could have been different responses from my parents, but they just didn’t know how to help me work through these things. EMDR did help with that trauma processing.

Carrie: That’s great. And then at some point you did some work on the rumination piece. You did ERP therapy, exposure and response prevention.

Sarah: Yes, I did about three months with the perinatal therapist and then I felt a lot better for the next six months, seven months. I was doing great. I really could even process it. I would think about OCD here and there throughout my day and it wouldn’t bother me, it wouldn’t suck me in or drag me down.

It really started ahead of the month where it just surged back up again. And so I started doing some research and I had just heard all over, reassurance seeking is bad, and ERP is the gold standard. I just spent some time praying about it, really felt God leading me to find a a Christian therapist because my other therapist was not a Christian.  Well, she was Catholic, let me say that.

Carrie: There were some faith differences between you and your first therapist. 

Sarah: Yes. With my perinatal therapist, she and I had different viewpoints about some things. We had some differences in our faith. I really felt the Lord leading me to seek out a therapist that had a more similar viewpoint about Christianity and worldview because with OCD, you want to be sure about so much, right? I didn’t feel like God was leading me to find someone who had the same viewpoint as I did. So he graciously provided someone who was willing to do ERP with me. I actually did all my sessions virtually. I did that for two months and it was extremely helpful and has given me so many tools that I still use today.

Carrie: Awesome. Tell me about some of those things that you use kind of in the moment when those obsessions come up.

Sarah: The first thing would be to recognize what it looks like for me. I actually have a notebook where I write down when I realize I have a theme that’s coming up. Themes for me would be like hurting my children, ruining my life, ruining my marriage, disappointing my husband in a way that would like leave him as.

It’s in a place where he is at a complete loss as to what to do in despair. Other themes there would be bringing shame on God’s name, God not being who he says he is, God planning evil. I would really say like the first thing that I learned from ERP is to just know your enemy. So then when you have a new thought that’s coming in.

You can go back and say, “Oh, look, it falls under. I’m going to ruin my life. Look at that. Happens to be OCD. It’s very sneaky.”

Carrie: It’s very helpful to identify, even though it may be like a different obsession, like there may be different wording that OCD throws at you, like you said, it’s still under that theme of like, “Oh, I’m going to ruin my life.” That was one of the things that I had shared kind of in a recent episode about, is this thought OCD is like, well, does it fit in with your themes that you usually have? Now people can jump themes, but typically there falls in things that they’ve heard before.

Sarah: Yes. The second thing I would say would be Learning how to respond, learning how to not engage with an intrusive thought or, you know, an obsession.

You find a phrase that communicates to you, like, challenge. So mine is, bring it on. Whenever I have something that triggers me, I might be changing a diaper, I might be bathing my kids, I might be sitting in church, somebody’s talking about God’s sovereignty. And something will trigger it, and I’ll just say, bring it on.

Another one is, maybe, maybe not. I’ll be triggered by the same thing, and it’s like, well, maybe I will, maybe I won’t, maybe I will ruin my life. And then, another thing would be to kind of chase it back down the alley that it came from. Not just, maybe God is real, maybe He’s not, but it would be like, maybe He’s not real.

Maybe I’ll waste my whole life doing things and worshiping something that’s not even real. And then when I die, I’ll just be buried in the ground and my whole life will kind of have been a waste in that way. Which is not true at all. I don’t believe that. But I’m taking the fear and I’m ramping up the anxiety, choosing not to engage in the desire to pick it apart.

What that’s doing for my brain is saying, this is not a valid threat. She’s actually thinking about it and working through it. Well, I guess we don’t need to bring that back up anymore. Yes. Another thing, script writing has been so helpful. Script writing is, you know, Basically writing a short story about your own personal nightmare.

Again, I have a notebook I keep it tucked away so that it’s not accidentally discovered by my children, but it has several of worst fears and so it might look like this and I’m just going to give la try to give a more mild one But they can be very hard to write down and I think the harder they are to write The closer you’re getting to helping yourself because OCD doesn’t back down.

It gives you really hard, terrible thoughts. And so you have to get right back at it, but it might be like, I trusted God my whole life, but he’s actually not trustworthy. If he really was trustworthy, he wouldn’t let that things happen to children. I cannot trust God, he is a liar. Of course for a Christian that sounds extremely blasphemous, and it is, however, what you’re doing is you’re taking that intrusive thought that says, I can’t trust God, what if I can’t trust him?

Well, if you really could trust God, then he should be more trustworthy, like he should not let bad things happen. And instead of being sucked into the desire to pick it apart and theologically and every time this thing comes up. By reading this script several times and going back to it when I have this fear come up again that God isn’t trustworthy, it helps to shut that down in my brain.

Carrie: After reading it so many times, you feel internally calmer. Basically, your brain gets bored with it. It’s kind of like, Oh, yeah, I heard that story before. I don’t really believe it now. You feel like it becomes less real, like when you’re in the OCD zone, whatever you want to call it, bubble zone like mode.

Everything feels really real that’s not real, and so then I wonder if, as you’re reading that story, it becomes less real and more like a story?

Sarah: It does. It becomes more like a story. You do definitely get bored with it. That’s exactly what my therapist would say. And initially though, it does increase anxiety and you will have the itch to perform the compulsion.

So for me, I would write down my script and then it would be hard after a therapy session not to assure myself, Oh, but I can read the scriptures and it’ll say that you can trust God and that he’s perfect in all his ways. Instead, you choose not to do that. If it feels like a deep need, Then that’s like your OCD saying, okay, this is, you need to do that compulsion to feel better.

So choose not to engage with it. And over time reading that script, your brain gets bored with it. After many times of reading the script, you start to see, oh, look, there’s the core fear or look, there’s my theme or wow, I can totally tell that’s not true by just reading it over and over again.

Carrie: Yes.I think that’s the struggle Mitzi Van Cleave a long time ago talked about. She researched that and did a lot of those on her own kind of over and over. I’m researching imaginal script writing and I think that’s the hardest part for Christians is feeling like, okay, I’m putting in something that’s not true maybe for myself or, or reading that over and over again. I think it’s easier, I don’t know if easier is the right word, but maybe to take the kind of maybe, maybe not stance at times.

It’s like, okay, why is it that I’m needing like assurance or needing to ask somebody a reassurance on that right now? I’m curious how this has impacted your spiritual journey with God. I know you talked a lot about struggling with that commitment to take medication until you got better, the commitment to kind of, sounds like you had to work through a lot of shame related to even having OCD in the first place. How did all of this interact spiritually in your relationship with God?

Sarah: I would say first of all, God was so gracious to me. I did find myself, especially through the first six months, a lot of tears, a lot of wondering, like, God, when are you going to show me the way out? This is just so awful. But now I look back and see that he was doing, like, really deep healing work in so many ways that I would never have imagined. trade out. I’m just so thankful for the way that he’s healed me. I did spend a lot of time, especially in the first six months, wondering when God would heal me or help me to get better or lead me out of it.

Now I see that he was doing a lot of great, deep healing work in many facets of my life. I think the greatest thing that I’ve learned through it all is just the voice of the Holy Spirit being different from the voice of OCD, a calm and gentle spirit. There’s a podcast that you did, FAQs about OCD, that was very helpful for me in just remembering that God spoke in a still small voice and it wasn’t a driving force, you have to do this right now.

I think it’s easy for a Christian to get OCD mixed up with the Holy Spirit. Definitely helped me with that. And I would also say, just God is so faithful to bring me to the other side where I can mother my children and be around them all day long because I’m a homeschooled mom of six and know how to deal with my intrusions. I don’t have so many anymore now that I’ve done exposure therapy and there are seasons where I have to come back and do more just to kind of, sometimes I get out of practice, but I’ve just found God to be so faithful to me in taking just what was so shameful and turning that into glory for me. Just that whole beauty for ashes thing about how God redeems, he takes terrible, awful things and he makes them for good and then he’s using it to help me even, I’ve had a couple friends that. Since I’ve shared my story, they have said, I’ve had the same thing. I had no idea it had a name. I’m just like, so grateful that God would ever use my story to help somebody else, maybe not have to suffer as long as I did. God is faithful.

Carrie: I think it’s very redemptive too. If people feel like they’re in. An unmanageable place with OCD. It’s very hopeful and helpful for you to say, yeah, these thoughts come into my mind every once in a while, but you can get to a place where you’re still functional. You’re still able to raise your family.

You’re still able to do things that are important to you. You’re not where you were before. And I hope that that gives someone hope, maybe who is in that sad, dark time of am I ever going to get out of this hole? Are things ever going to get better? So I hope that people hear that today. There’s hope on the other side of what they’re facing and what they’re dealing with. I wanted to ask you one more question, because we do have some family members that listen to the show. We do have some friends and people that are trying to be helpful to a loved one who’s suffering. What was that conversation like with your husband when all of this was going on?

How did you help him help support you in terms of like reassurance seeking and things like that? Was that hard for him to know? What do I say or how do I respond?

Sarah: I would say, first of all, it was so hard for me initially to share that I was having these thoughts. I didn’t even know that these thoughts had a name, intrusive thoughts.

He was very gracious when I did tell him about it. He didn’t freak out like I expected him to. But, I would say, if a family member shares with you that they’re having some deep dark thoughts like this, and you know that this is not true of their character, Just listen with an open heart and mind, and I would say support them in their journey to find healing, whether that’s through therapy, which they probably will definitely need, or medication, which might be a really helpful way to support them.

Another thing I would say with the reassurance seeking, my husband is good at this, saying, well, Sounds like you need to just face your fears, but it can also translate into motherhood. I have a child who deals with some, a lot of anxiety over sickness. So whenever we have the stomach bug running through our house, she says, Oh, I hope I don’t get sick, mom.

And I can pray with her and reassure her all day, but that’s empty reassurance. And really what’s helpful for me to do is say, Well, Eden, maybe you’ll get sick and maybe you won’t. But we’re going to make it through it and I have actually seen it with my own eyes that it’s kind of helped to, it increases her anxiety, but that releases it later on.

It helps her brain to deal with it. I would say the family member is constantly coming to you for reassurance. Try your best to lovingly not give them that reassurance. Ask the Lord for wisdom as to how you can support them without giving them reassurance because it does feed OCD.

Carrie: It’s a hard balance to strike, right? Being supportive. 

Sarah: It’s so hard because I did tell my mom at one point. I said, the best thing that I can hear is just like, you’re a good mom, and you’re really doing a great job. And she’s the most supportive person in the world, so she will say that. But then my OCD says back, she doesn’t know these thoughts.

What if I really am a terrible mom? So it really doesn’t help. Or maybe you say it once. I really believe that you are a great mom. But you don’t need to say it 20 times to them. I would say, look, I’ve already told you that. I’m not gonna tell you again. It’s a hard balance. It’s really hard.

Carrie: Yeah. Kudos for all of you who are supporting your loved ones who have, are dealing with OCD.

Maybe if they need to hear it, they’re doing a good job. Sarah, I know that you told me that you went through a mentorship program as well that was helpful for you. Can you tell us about that?

Sarah: Yes. My perinatal therapist recommended Postpartum Support International, I think it’s psi.org, but they have a peer mentor program, which basically, if you want support, you can interview with them and tell them what you’re dealing with, which they recognize that there’s postpartum OCD and postpartum psychosis and all of these different diagnosis And they’ll basically hook you up in a relationship with another mom who has dealt with the same thing, who has decided that they want to mentor someone going through the same thing.

They’re not a Christian organization by any means. They have all kinds of support groups out there. Like I said, I’m a Christian. I would like somebody who has faith to be my mentor, and they hooked me up with somebody who had, like, faith. And that was helpful, obviously, because if you’re a Christian, you want to be careful who you get your support and your counsel from, but the great thing about that is that you can have somebody who’s gone through the same thing, if you don’t know anybody else, which chances are we all know somebody who’s been through it, but we’ve never shared our stories because they’re just so embarrassing, but it hooks you up with somebody else who’s been through the same thing that can be a support to you.

For the next three to four months, you either have phone calls or you text. You stay in communication and that person is just there to be a support. That was a helpful resource for me. Now I do mentor other women through that same program.

Carrie: That’s awesome. I think that that’s really great. Sometimes, you know, we need somebody to just come alongside us who understands and there’s things that they’re shared experience that we don’t have to explain. Yes. Thousand percent. All right. Thank you for sharing some of these really vulnerable thoughts that you had with us. I think that that helps people because there’s going to be other people who listen who go, Oh, I’ve had that thought too.

Maybe I’m not a horrible person because I’ve had that thought. Maybe this is OCD talking. So thanks for sharing.

Sarah: You’re welcome. I do hope that it brings somebody so much hope, even if it brings one person steps forward to getting help, that will be God getting the glory for that.

Carrie: Hey, if you want to be in the know here on the podcast, you’ve got to get on our email list, okay? These are the people who know about the latest happenings even before they hit the airwaves. It’s super easy. You can go to hopeforanxietyandocd.com/free. Put your email in to receive any of the free downloads. You do actually have to click the download in your email when you receive it, otherwise you won’t be subscribed.

So that’s an important tip that you need to know. Until next time, thank you so much for listening. 

Hope for Anxiety and OCD is a production of By The Well Counseling. Our show is hosted by me, Carrie Bock, a licensed professional counselor in Tennessee. Opinions given by our guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of myself or By The Well Counseling.

Our original music is by Brandon Mangrum. Until next time, may you be comforted by God’s great love for you.